Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.
I must confess that for most of my life I have not been strongly attracted to the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, or ordinarily to hearing preaching about it. To read it, as I most often had, literally and singularly referring to the liturgy of the Eucharist and the reception of communion made Jesus’ promise seem both incomprehensible and beyond any sense of my own experience. Even as an adult, I was influenced by the somewhat magical sense that the very first teachings about the Eucharist I ever heard as a child inculcated in me. I really never did know from experience the truth that by receiving communion Jesus remained in me throughout the day, let alone the week in-between, nor could I identify with Jesus’ promise that feeding on him by taking communion would be the source of life in me.
So, even up to relatively recently, I never looked forward to meditating, let alone teaching, the content of John 6. However, I am ever so slowly beginning to realize something of the truth that my real life is the life of Jesus in me. It is by being fed by that life, the life which the gospels describe, that I begin to have and to live my true life, a life that is one with the life of God. I only began to glimpse this truth, however, as I came to realize how much the way I live, think, and speak much of my time is not really living. As Jan van Ruusbroec says, I began to be aware of myself “as the sinner who is displeasing to himself.” A true awareness and contrition of this, however, also becomes an awareness that this life I lead which displeases me is not all of who I am. As my awareness of my sinfulness increases, an intuition of and desire for a life that is hidden in me, and that I know to be loved and held infinitely, also grows. As this occurs, the idea of feeding that deeper life, that real life “in Christ,” begins to make much more sense.
With every consonant act, every thought, word, or deed, that expresses the life of Jesus in me, I am feeding on and being nourished by the body and blood of Jesus. With every false, inauthentic, and self-serving thought, word, or deed, that life within is diminished. As our own life is fed more and more by the life, the body and blood, of Jesus, our falseness, our sinfulness, becomes more and more apparent and present to us. This is the strange paradox that we note in the life of the saints. They are, in what often seems to me an excessive way, aware of their sinfulness. Yet, unlike myself, they are not ashamed of themselves in a deformative way. This is because their awareness of their sinfulness is experienced in the light of the love of God for their own Christ form, that is the life of Christ in them.
This is the experience that Theodore James Ryken relates when, at the age of nineteen, he is brought low or put in his place by what he terms “a deep humiliation.” To be brought low, however, does not have the effect of increasing in him self-depreciation or even self-hatred. Rather, it is at that very moment that he realizes the love of God for him, what he terms “falling in love with God.” He then “puts himself in God’s service” because the realization we are loved by God is always a direction to share that love, to proclaim to others that they are loved by God in this same way.
As we experience truly being touched by this love of God for Jesus in us, we both grow in awareness of our sinfulness and lack of integrity while also growing more and more self-forgetful. This may seem strange and psychologically impossible. Yet, as we ponder the gospels we learn that the love of Jesus for the sinner is manifest in compassion and mercy. For followers of Christ, love always means mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. This is, as Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, the ultimate and final form of love. To be aware of our sinfulness in the light of God’s love and mercy is to begin to let go of our self-identification as sinful. As we accept that reality in us, we are able to forget it, leaving it to the mercy of God.
One way we learn this truth about the nature of our deeper life in Christ is through meditation. To undertake the practice of meditation is to begin to learn a mode of presence to our own thoughts and feelings, to our own actions good and bad, that allows them to rise up in our consciousness and then to release them as they pass through us. Meditation draws us into the life of Jesus that is our deeper life. Thus, in mindfulness, I become both aware of my sinfulness, and even what I may judge as my goodness, and then to forget them. As Ruusbroec writes, “I am therefore bold and outspoken, forgetful of myself and of all my transgressions.” He also says of those who have begun to live the Christ life that “all good works which they do or are able to do, whether exteriorly or interiorly, are completely unnoticed by them and are of no importance to them, seeming to be as nothing in the sight of God.” The life on which Jesus asks us to feed is a life beyond our feeble attempts even to do good as we see it. In the vision of God, those deeds “seem to be as nothing.”
My almost lifelong problem with Jesus’ teaching in John 6 is that I really had no idea of what he was talking about. As long as I read his promises as conditional on what I do, I was looking for his body and blood to feed my ego, my own rational-functional life. Not only were the words hopelessly mysterious to me, so was my own real life. I had not yet even begun to eat of his body and drink of his blood as Jesus means it. So, I did not experience the real hunger to do so. As Ruusbroec writes: “. . . the more I eat, the more hungry I become, and the more I drink, the more thirsty I become, for I cannot take you fully into myself and consume you.” Once, as Ryken, we are put in our place and brought low, we experience a life within us that makes us insatiable for more. We realize that what we have taken to be life is really death, and that life lies not so much in our consuming Christ that our life-in-death may be nourished, bur rather in our being consumed by Christ, “so that I might become one life with you and in you. . . .”
“Lord, you have said, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5). You have also said, ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you’ (Jn 6:53). You have said in addition, ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him’ (Jn 6:56) Lord, I am presently a poor sinner and unworthy of the heavenly food which you yourself are. Nevertheless, Lord, you have given and left yourself for the sinner who is displeasing to himself, who contritely confesses and laments his sins, and who has a genuine trust in you. Such a person is pleasing to you, for you have taught us that you came to call not the just but the sinner (cf. Mt 913), so that he might repent and do penance for his sins. I am therefore bold and outspoken, forgetful of myself and of all my transgressions because of your grace, for you yourself have said, ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you’ (Mt 11:28). You have also said that you are our living bread which has come down from heaven and that anyone who eats it will live forever (cf. Jn 6:51). You are also the living spring which flows out of your Father’s heart by means of the Holy Spirit. As a consequence, Lord, the more I eat, the more hungry I become, and the more I drink the more thirsty I become, for I cannot take you fully into myself and consume you. But I ask you, Lord, of your great nobility, that you take me fully into yourself and consume me, so that I might become one life with you and in you and that I, in your life, might be able to rise above myself and above all particular forms and exercises to a state devoid of forms—that is, to a state of formless love, where you are your own beatitude and that of all the saints. It is there that I will find the fruit of all the sacraments, of all particular forms, and of all holiness.”
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, II, B